As quarantine measures spread across the world, we’ve seen some harsh side effects: on top of all the singing celebrity hand-washing videos, there’s been a raft of corona-themed parody cover songs, Come on Eileen and Ice, Ice Baby detourned into supposedly funny ditties on hand-washing and loo roll. Yet one of the few people actually known for their parodies has remained shtum: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic merely tweeted to tell the world that no, he would not be re-remaking My Sharona as My Corona.
Sure, we all need a laugh now; it’s hard to think about anything, much less art, while we hold our collective breath. The parody songs are intended as light relief, a way to help make sense of all this. Which is maybe why I find them so grating. Given the infuriating, slow-mo surrealism of the moment, the joke song that comes to mind and seems most apt to me is in fact a Weird Al tune, though it’s not a cover version and is over three decades old: Dare to Be Stupid (1985). It’s an ode to hard-headed contrarianism dressed up as a short synth-pop song aping Devo, the lyrics listing reversions of good advice, idioms and truisms, with a few nods to the popular culture of the time. “Put down your chainsaw and listen to me, it’s time for us to join in the fight. It’s time to let your babies grow up to be cowboys, it’s time to let the bedbugs bite,” etc.
One of the few people actually known for their parodies has remained shtum: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic merely tweeted to tell the world that no, he would not be re-remaking My Sharona as My Corona
The song’s been running around my head nonstop for a few reasons. Its fairly tame parameters for what constitutes stupidity and its atmosphere of forced fun are fitting for a point at which you haven’t left the house in over a week and your main challenge for the day consists of seeing how long you can keep a three-year-old entertained with paper airplanes. It also seems prescient in unexpected ways: what was, during the early 1980s, a tribute to veering away from common sense now sounds more like what could be Dominic Cummings’s latest blog post doing a zany call-out for the next UK minister for health. (Cummings is UK PM Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, for you non-Brits.) Which is to say, laughter is a good response to trying times (maybe the best); but part of the reason satire has been rendered almost defunct these days is because the people supposedly running things already have the batshit-crazy pretty well covered.
Most writing attempting to define humour discusses its dismantling properties: the ability of a joke to show the arbitrariness of certain patterns, throwing aside the stiffness of proscribed meanings. Henri Bergson wrote about rigidity as one of the key aspects of humour: the stiffness of the body or the mind that transformed the subject, for a moment, into an object of ridicule. Most philosophies of humour, however, seem to come solely from within the house the humour built; from a place of knowing the order that is already long-established and then later being tremored with a quip. Laughter, according to these theories, is always at something, something known, in the same way that Weird Al’s songs are always a direct parody or ‘in the style of’ something. But what if we don’t know what we’re laughing at? Or if events are too large to comprehend, are our faculties for humour just overwhelmed, so that even a lame joke about a lasagne being made in Wembley Stadium is considered funny?
Charles Le Brun, Laughter, 1727, from Expressions of the Soul's Passions, Represented in Several Engraved Heads, based on drawings by the late Mr. Le Brun, published by J. Audran (Paris), plate 9. © BnF, Editions Multimedia, 2018
In his last work, The Passions of the Soul (1649), René Descartes described what he saw as the emotions that drove our bodies, many of them a derived mixture of the six dominant passions: desire, hate, joy, love, sadness and wonder. And although a body was merely a mechanical vessel for our soul, how we expressed each emotion was varied, undetermined. Charles Le Brun, though, taking Descartes’s ideas further, had an exact face for every passion. As the court painter for Louis XIV and chancellor of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris during the 1660s, these faces were taught as one of the core techniques of the royal style. Using a set of diagrams of heads, each hairless model illustrating one of the passions, he taught that the face was the point that ‘marks the movement of the soul and makes the effects of passion visible’.
Laughter, for Descartes, was merely a mixture of wonder mixed with hate or joy. Or sometimes both.
Laughter, for Descartes, was merely a mixture of wonder mixed with hate or joy. Or sometimes both. Le Brun’s diagram for this is a broad face, with heavily rounded cheekbones, its big lips upturned in what is, we are told, a smile; the lips slightly parted, the upper teeth showing. Lines run horizontally across three examples of the face to show the correct distance between mouth and nose, eye and eyebrow. The irises of the eyes are uncoloured. It does look like a mix of wonder and hatred. Or in more modern terms, mania and creepiness. Le Brun’s lectures on facial expression influenced European painting and art theory for hundreds of years, if not more: if you draw a moustache, aviator-frame glasses and a long perm on his laughing face, what you end up with is pretty close to the gawping, exuberant mug that stares back at you from Weird Al’s early album covers.
In Inner Experience (1943), Georges Bataille writes about laughter in a way that at this point sounds sensible: as irrepressible nonsense, the expressions we can’t contain. In one section, he briefly notes that laughter is also a wildly infectious form of acknowledging the gaps in knowledge and the social discrepancies that we all, at some point, experience. Laughing is an expression of inadequacy, and ‘the child is the opportunity to learn… over an abyss of insufficiency’.
Nonsense and insufficiency are my current spirit animals. We sure don’t need utopian thinking, because it’s already abundant – any forward planning is utopian these days. Perhaps we should, within very proscribed and distanced self-isolating parameters, throw caution to the wind and dare to be stupid.
First published online 25 March 2020